Dazzled by digits: how we’re wooed by product specifications

From megapixels and gigabytes to calorie counts and sun protection factors, there’s barely a product out there that isn’t proudly boasting its enviable specs to would-be purchasers. A new study suggests these figures exert a powerful, irrational effect on consumers’ decision-making, even overriding the influence of a person’s direct experience with a product.

In an initial experiment, Christopher Hsee and colleagues asked 112 students to choose between one of two hypothetical cameras: one boasted better resolution, the other having superior vividness. Based on sample photos taken by the two cameras, but without detail on the precise resolution specs, most participants (74 per cent) chose the camera that took more vivid photos. By contrast, when given the resolution specs as well as the sample photos, many more participants chose the camera with higher resolution.

Moreover, participants were influenced by the same information being presented differently – in this case they were particularly swayed by the ratio of the resolution stats. When resolution was described in terms of total dots (thus conveying a larger ratio difference), 75 per cent of participants chose the superior resolution camera compared with just 51 per cent when given the relative resolution specs in terms of the number of diagonal dots (conveying a smaller ratio difference).

Further experiments showed that specifications exerted a similar influence even when they were derived from the participants’ own ratings of the product (towel softness) and when participants were told that a given specification (the aromatic Xiangdu index of sesame oil) represented a rank order only, rather than revealing the relative difference between products.

Finally, two studies involving mobile phones and crisps showed that although specifications can influence product choice, they don’t influence actual enjoyment. For example, participants told about the relative thickness of crisps and asked to choose in advance how much of each version to eat, tended to say they’d prefer to eat more of the thicker version. By contrast, participants who tasted the crisps first before making their choice of crisp, were far less affected by knowledge of which was the “thicker” crisp.

The researchers concluded with some advice for consumers: “First, they should seek experience, not just numbers,” Hsee’s team said. Secondly, the researchers advised people should avoid direct comparisons between products, remembering that your real-life experience of a product will most likely be in isolation rather than side by side with its rivals.

ResearchBlogging.orgChristopher K. Hsee, Yang Yang, Yangjie Gu, Jie Chen (2008). Specification Seeking: How Product Specifications Influence Consumer Preference Journal of Consumer Research DOI: 10.1086/593947

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.